Wonder and the Sea at Isla Mujeres, Mexico
By Noelle Mering
Recently, my husband and I found ourselves on a lovely vacation in Cancun, Mexico, sponsored generously by his company. While the water, sand, and weather are all wonderfully idyllic, the hotel area in Cancun generally serves to buffer tourists from any type of authentic cultural experience. Isla Mujeres, about an eight mile ferry ride away, manages to have a robust tourist industry while still retaining a feeling of the wildness that is lost at the manicured artifice of the Cancun hotel zone.
At only 5 miles long and 400 yards at its widest point, the island is tiny; the feeling of being at the sea is everywhere you go. Despite the watery border, people seem unencumbered by boundaries. Noticeably absent are any lane markers in the streets, either drawn or acknowledged. Architectural elements are painted boldly and bravely, my favorite being reoccurring deep bougainvillea pink painted walls. Even the island’s star adventure attraction, deep sea diving, bespeaks of a certain comfort with penetrating beyond the surface and an intuitive acknowledgment of the reality of what’s beyond.
The island's name translates to "Island of the Women." Spanish settlers named it after discovering many idols to Mayan goddesses, as well as the prevalence of female inhabitants while the men were out at sea. In 1890 fishermen discovered wood-carved and porcelain statues of the Blessed Mother on the tip of Quintana Roo. One of the fishermen took a statue to his home on the Island where she was enshrined in a small chapel made of palms.
Years later the decision was made to move her to a church, but the statue had inexplicably become far heavier and more challenging to move. When she was finally relocated, the palm shrine burst into flames to the astonishment of onlookers. She’s now in residence at the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, and there have been numerous witnesses claiming sightings of her at dawn walking along the sea.
In the States, we get used to feeling skeptical of the reality of the immaterial. To be religious can mean feeling a pervasive sense of being counter cultural. Recently, upon learning that we had six kids, a colleague of a friend inquired, “Oh! Are you...religious?” Her face puzzled and slightly scrunched as though some faintly putrid smell had wafted by. We went on to have a lovely conversation and she was nice about it all, albeit very open about her general displeasure with such a cultural relic as religion.
Sometimes it can be animating to be counter cultural; you become acutely aware of choosing and re-choosing this way of life, and your reasons for choosing it are more likely to be well thought out. It’s difficult to be lulled into a rote shell of piety when your life’s mission requires such active and ongoing commitment. Of course, it's also easy to curl up into a tight defensive crouch, a posture as unappealing as it is counterproductive.
All of this was on my mind during our time on Isla. Like the watery border, religion and mystery surround you there. Inhabitants, secular and not, reference Holy Week as we would reference Spring. Everyone comes out for the eleven day festival in December celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the island’s patroness.
There’s a chance that a culture so steeped in religion can become ritualistic, a veneer of the old faith masking a hollow core. Obviously in one day I wasn't able to discern where the Isla dwellers fall on such a spectrum, and I’m sure, like anywhere, it’s a mix.
Perhaps their life, so surrounded by the wildness of nature, has caused the mysteries of religion to be embedded deeply within them. It’s easier to succumb to the stultifying flatness of the material world when you’re accustomed to all of the advanced technological comforts and entertainments marginalizing nature’s impact on our daily life and distracting us from our own mortality. Although as recent fire and flooding in my little part of California remind us, we're all vulnerable to the wild, in all its peril and beauty.
Besides engaging us intellectually and incarnation-ally, Catholicism should foster in us a deep sense of supernatural wonder, a sense we should feel in our bones. Isla Mujeres pushed me to appreciate how a culture built on tradition, but animated by joy and playfulness can help feed that wonder.